What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NLT)]

purple coneflowerJesus often took the Pharisees to task, not for their theology, but for their behavior. With the Talmud’s description of seven different kinds of Pharisees, six of whom were contemptible, we know that the Jews were not unaware of their failings. Since Jesus was well-versed in Jewish law and tradition, I wonder if He was thinking about the Talmud’s list when He pronounced seven woes upon the scribes and Pharisees.

The Talmud mentions the Shikmi or “Shoulder” Pharisee who ostentatiously wore his good works on his shoulder for all to see. Next was the Nikip Pharisee; he was the “Stumbling” or “Wait-a-Minute” fellow who could always find a good deed that needed to be done and a reason why he couldn’t do it. The Kizai was the “Bruised” or “Bleeding” Pharisee who was so sanctimonious that he kept his eyes turned away from any woman. As a result, he kept bumping into things and hurting himself. The “Hump-Backed” or “Mortar and Pestle” Pharisee pretentiously showed his extreme humility by remaining bent over and shuffling his feet. Believing that God owed Him for every good he did, the “Ever-Reckoning” or “Always-Counting” Pharisee self-righteously kept score of his good deeds and the “Timid” or “Fearful” Pharisee did good works only out of fear that God would punish him if he didn’t. The seventh type was the “God-Loving” or “God-Fearing” Pharisee who really loved God and did good deeds to please the Lord. Perhaps Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus personally, defended Him, and brought spices to His grave was such a man.

Jesus’ words of condemnation shouldn’t be limited to 1st Century Pharisees; they hold true for all of us. What might Jesus say about some of those who profess to be His followers today? Thinking of the seven kinds of Pharisee, I replaced the word “Pharisee” with “Christian” and saw much that was recognizable in the 21st century church.

There are plenty of “Shoulder” believers who subtly manage to make sure everyone is aware of their good works. If we don’t pat them on the back, they’ll do it for us. Yet, Jesus told us not to do our good works for the admiration of others. As for the “Wait-a-Minute” believers, if you’ve ever served on a church committee, you’ve met one (or more) of these. “Yes, it needs to be done but I can’t do it now,” is their permanent response to any call. They forget that sins of omission are no less wrong than sins of commission. When I reflect on the scandals and abuse that have rocked our churches, I think of the “Bruised” believer—the one who so publicly and virtuously denounces sexual sin while secretly bumping right into it. Then there’s the “Hump-Backed” believer whose pious self-effacement and insincere humility beg for public praise. False modesty is no more attractive in a Christian than it was for a Pharisee.

We also have the “Always-Counting” believers who can list every noble thing they’ve ever done (and every ignoble one done by anyone else). Thinking their score card entitles them to preferred treatment, they get angry with God when life goes awry. Good works, however, are to be done from the heart and not as a way of warding off trouble. Moreover, God is the only one allowed to keep score and any reward will occur in in the next life, not this one. The “Fearful” believer is the one who can’t accept his salvation or believe that he’s really forgiven. Afraid of hellfire and damnation, he tries to earn his ticket into heaven with good works. Salvation, however, is God’s gift and can’t be earned. Saving the best for last, we come to the “God-loving” believer, the one who does good works, not for praise, brownie points, or to ward off trouble, but out of love for God and his fellow man.

If Jesus walked into your church today, which of the seven would you be?

But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! [Matthew 5:20 (NLT)]

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